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Therapy vs. Coaching


Therapy vs. Coaching: Everything You Need to Know 

What is Therapy?

Therapy focuses on exploring the past and present in order to find new, healthier ways to manage and regulate your emotions. Therapy often includes determining a diagnosis according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is required by insurance companies for treatment purposes.

Therapy helps move you from a state of dysfunction to being functional and stable. 

Therapy is appropriate for you if:

  • You have a current mental health diagnosis that is interfering with your everyday life.
  • You have a substance abuse problem.
  • You have experienced a significant trauma that has been unresolved.
  • You are struggling with anxiety and/or phobias that significantly impact your ability to function
  • You continue to try and focus on the future, but it seems that events, people and/or situations from the past continue to influence your current habits, patterns and beliefs about yourself

It can be difficult to know whether you need therapy and whether you are experiencing “dysfunction”—after all, you’re needing to make a change, so isn’t the desire for change itself a recognition that something isn’t “functioning” in your life? Not quite. Whereas therapy involves a psychological diagnosis to help you make change in behavior or processing, coaching addresses a different kind of change using a completely different process. 

What is Coaching?

According to The International Coach Federation (ICF), which is the largest coaching credentialing and support organization in the world, defines coaching as: 

Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. They seek to elicit solutions and strategies from the client; they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful. The coach’s job is to provide support to enhance the skills, resources and creativity that the client already has.

In so many words, the coach and client (that’s you!) work together to develop a plan to help you with your present day goals. Coaches don’t diagnose mental health disorders nor do they explore past childhood issues that may be creating resistance or problems today.

Coaching is appropriate for you if:

  • You only want to address current life issues.
  • You want to learn new and more effective ways to communicate.
  • You want to improve your health and wellness.
  • You have a specific issue that you need help with, but you don’t need psychological support
  • You are ready to make a significant life change, since coaching requires a lot of work that requires you to be “ready” to meet weekly goals.

It can be confusing for some people, even with the breakdown I’ve articulated above, to know whether they need therapy or coaching. That’s normal, and a trained therapist and coach will help you navigate the decision, but it does help to explore further the differences between the therapeutic relationship and the process you would undertake with a coach. 

How is Therapy Different Than Coaching?

Therapy looks at your past (and present) to better understand how to make your present more manageable. Therapy, in general, looks at the events of your life that may or may not be contributing to your present day struggles.

Therapy wants to explore and uncover any conscious or unconscious feelings you may have that may be preventing you from moving forward in your life. You might be experiencing some kind of current dysfunction, such as depression, anxiety, addiction, that’s interfering with your life. 

Therapists use a variety of techniques and modalities such as psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy (to name only a few) to help improve your daily functioning and address the deeper issues causing the dysfunction. 

Coaching offers a different approach to a different problem. Coaching can help guide your personal development to help you work through present and future goals and life changes with a targeted plan of action. 

Coaching is a dynamic process, like therapy, but the coach is more directive than therapy. Coaching can help anyone find direction and the strength to take action in their lives.

The best way to understand the difference between these two practices is to look at the type of conversations you have in therapy vs. in coaching.

Therapeutic conversations are usually open-ended and less structured. The direction of the conversation is usually determined by how you’re feeling, any insights you gained since our last meeting and an analysis of any events that triggered a set of emotions that you might struggle with often.

Coaching conversations are more directive and structured. You may have filled out a form prior to the scheduled session; letting the coach know which goals you’ve met and which goals you are struggling with. The sessions are task-focused, involving concrete action plans that are designed to help you meet a specific goal. 

How Do I Know I Need Therapy or Coaching? 

When people ask me this question it always makes me smile, because I believe that in a perfect world we would all have a therapist and coach in our back pockets that we can call on when we need help. It’s not because I think people are unable to “solve their own problems” or that “everyone is crazy and needs help.” It’s because I know that life is complex, painful and overwhelming, and we all can use some guidance, support and someone to point us in the right direction.

As a therapist and coach, I’m a little biased (just a little, though), and believe that while your co-worker, mother, best friend, neighbor is awesome when it comes to giving advice, there are times when you need someone who is trained to help with a particular problem.

The question that seems to stump most people is whether, at this moment, they need to hire a therapist or a coach.

If you are struggling with whether you need a coach vs. a therapist, start by asking yourself, “What is motivating me to think about hiring one of these professionals?”

If you are motivated to seek help because:

  • Everything feels overwhelming or intense
  • You’re having rapid mood swings
  • You’re having physical issues such as, headaches, stomach aches, back pain, not sleeping well
  • You’re drinking or using drugs to cope
  • Work is not going well, and you think you are on the verge of being fired
  • Most of your most significant relationships are strained
  • Someone has told you that you may need to see someone…

…you need to call a therapist.

If you are motivated to seek help because:

  • You’re not experiencing any mental health issues, but you have a specific goal that you can’t reach
  • You’re lacking focus or motivation
  • You’re having trouble identifying your strengths/barriers
  • You need help developing a strategy and plan to reach a goal

…you need to call a coach.

Isn’t Life Coaching the Same as...Therapy?

Life coaching and therapy do share a lot of similarities. There was a time where you primarily only heard of Executive/Business Coaches, hired by corporations to help high level executives better manage their time, their employees and their work flow. 

These days there are coaches for pretty much anything. You can hire a Health Coach to help you lose weight, a Relationship Coach to help you meet a partner or improve your present relationship, a Motivation Coach to set and meet goals, a Launch Coach to help you launch a new product or service in your business, a Confidence Coach to help you gain belief in yourself, and the list goes on and on.

The title Life Coach is a bit more of a “catch-all.” Life Coaches tend to look at your whole life—your work, relationships, health, spirituality, money, family and friends. Life Coaches help you create strategies for changing all aspects of your life. Like any other type of coach, Life Coaches focus on action, accountability and follow-through.

But as I noted above, coaching is an entirely different process than therapy and is intended to solve issues that are not psychological in nature, but rather help you with goal-oriented problem-solving.

How Do I Know if I Need a Life Coach or a Career Coach?

If most aspects of your life are going well and you have no complaints, but you absolutely hate your job and have to find something else, you want a Career Coach.

A Career Coach will help you establish your professional goals, determine the obstacles that are in your way, and create a plan to either change jobs, change careers, gain new career skills, or make important career-related decisions.

A Life Coach might ask you look at each aspect of your life and rate how satisfied you are in each part of your life. They will then ask you to identify your goals in that part of your life. Together you work with your coach to reach those goals.

While a Life Coach can assist with career issues, Career Coaches focus exclusively on solving career issues, usually through having you take personality test like the Myers-Briggs or other proprietary tests to determine whether your best career fit. A career coach usually does not assist with other life issues outside of the career. 

How do I "interview" a therapist or coach?

Finding the right therapist or coach is similar to finding the right real estate agent, nanny or dentist—with a twist. 

When you are looking for a dentist, you need to believe they are competent and able to do their job. The “twist” is that you don’t have to feel connected, heard or understood by the person cleaning your teeth. 

Therapy and coaching relationships are bit more involved and personal. 

When you start this process you need to trust your instincts. If any aspect of the process doesn’t feel right, then listen to that inner voice.

In order for therapy to be effective you need to feel comfortable sharing intimate details of your life and you need to feel that your therapist understands you.

In order for coaching to be effective you need to feel that your coach supports your goals. Coaches give you homework and you need to feel comfortable with their skills and abilities because you will be accountable to them in order to reach your goals.

Most coaches and therapists are willing to spend anywhere from 15-30 minutes on the phone with you for free, to learn more about you and what you need help with. If the coach or therapist is unwilling to have any kind of significant conversation with you over the phone ahead of time – I would move on to the next person on your list.

Again, trust your gut instinct, if the relationship feels forced or uncomfortable in anyway, you should move on to the next name on your list.

Feel free to call more than one therapist or coach. Ask each therapist or coach the same set of questions and see how their responses vary. This relationship is an important one so take your time.

If you talk to a potential therapist or coach over the phone and you connect with them and like what they have to say, make an appointment.

If you are looking for a therapist, the worst-case scenario is that you meet with the therapist in person and it doesn’t feel right. Just be honest with the therapist and don’t make another appointment. You will be out the session fee but nothing is a complete waste of time—you have just gained some information about what doesn’t work for you and now you can ask better, more informed, questions to the next therapist on your list.

Coaches tend to charge by the month, so be sure to ask about their refund policy. If you work together for a month and you are not satisfied, do you have to continue to pay for months 2 and 3? Ask if can you purchase a one-time session or be honest about your concerns and see if they will have a second phone session with you for free for 15 minutes.

What is a therapy session like?

Most therapists meet in person and in a private office. If you are having an on-line therapy session then the therapist will be in a private space where no one can hear the conversation and will most likely ask the same of you.

Most therapists want to meet in person, however, because, depending on the severity of your mental illness, they need to see your body language and affect. They also usually are only licensed in one state, so their clients also need to be in that state. 

Therapists usually ask questions about your history, even if what you want to work on is present-focused, because we want to know how long certain symptoms have been going on, or if you have experienced any past traumas, and what mental health or addiction issues that are a part of your family history.

Some sessions are very involved and therapists will ask a lot of questions. Other times we’re quiet in order to allow you the space to talk about what you need. If we pick up on something you said or a gesture you made, we may press further.

Every therapist is different, of course. I allow my clients to determine what they want to talk about that day. I check in to see how they are doing and what they have been working on and reflecting on since we last saw each other.

What is a coaching session like?

Some coaches will meet in person but coaching can also happen over the phone or on Skype. Coaches are not bound by confidentiality, the way therapists are, so they may meet with you at a coffee-shop or be in an open space during a Skype session.

Coaches usually ask you to do some prep work before each session. Coaches want to get a better idea of what you’ve accomplished since the last session, like what is working for you and what you’re struggling with.

With a coaching session, there’s a plan you’ve been following prior to the session, and during the session we’ll identify the goals that you need to work on before the next call. In general, a coach will want to know what you’ve accomplished, what has been a challenge, and what needs to be the focus for the next phone call.

And you will have action items or goals you need to work on in between sessions, too.

Can you combine therapy and coaching? 

As I mentioned earlier, in a perfect world, we would all have access to a therapist and a coach whenever we needed help, but these are different disciplines with different approaches and goals. 

The benefit of working with a professional who has a background in therapy and coaching is that you’ll be able to know which path is right for you at this time.

The ultimate goal of both therapy and coaching is to develop new skills and behaviors that will bring you a more satisfying life. When you work with therapists and coaches, you’ll be able to reach your goals faster, get the life you want and feel better sooner.

I can help evaluate whether you need coaching or therapy. If you’re unsure whether you require therapy or coaching, or possibly both, contact me for a free 30-minute consultation so we can discuss your needs.